Anyone who understands language knows that it is a changeable feature of society. Just look at English, for example. Can you even imagine speaking like a character from a Shakespearian drama in this day and age? Although the basic mechanics of languages remain more or less the same (sentence structure, grammar, etc.), and there are a couple of widely used formats, vocabulary, accent, and intonation can all change over time as people find ways to make the language their own and use it as a tool for communication and expression. And in some ways, programming languages are the same. They are simply created, modified, and in some cases discarded at a much faster clip than human languages. Just like Sanskrit, Latin, Egyptian, and many other ancient languages are no longer commonly spoken, so too are programming languages abandoned. But what gives some more longevity than others? Why do some live while others die?
There are a couple of reasons why certain programming languages have stood the test of time (hey, 30 years is like a millennia when you’re talking about technology) while others have become nothing more than a page in binary history. For one thing, certain electronic languages tend to be more comprehensive than others, providing for the functionality that people require and desire. However, it’s not good enough to be the best only at one point in time. The languages that survive are those that tend to be the most flexible, allowing for growth, expansion, and transformation over time. This is not to say that they have to be open source so that any kid with a computer and an idea can change them; but they do need options that allow for tweaking so that improvements can take place.
Of course, it’s not always about who has the best product. Just look at the Betamax versus VHS debacle of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Although Betamax was clearly a superior product (featuring better video resolution than VHS), the way that Sony went about foisting their technology on the market was all wrong. They were determined to set an industry-wide standard by forcing their business partners to adopt their proprietary format. Unfortunately for them, JVC declined and decided to make a competitive product at a far lower cost. As most people know, VHS won that battle, and Betamax was relegated to the annals of history as an expensive marketing blunder (a lesson that Sony clearly learned from – they later beat out HD DVD with their Blu-ray technology).
The point is that the advancement of programming languages depends on two main factors: delivering what the public wants and convincing them that they want it. Sometimes it centers on having the better product, but more often than not, success in a consumer marketplace is dictated by how well a product is actually marketed. So whether programming languages are created to run a computer interface, connect to the internet, or simply make computer systems communicate with Cisco transceivers, for example, functionality (and long-term flexibility) is only half the battle. The other half is making it popular enough that it becomes a standard.
Sarah Danielson is a freelance writer and part time student. In her spare time she likes to go hiking and help with an animal rescue out of Los Angeles, California.